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What is Type 1 Diabetes?

Type 1 Diabetes - An Overview

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Updated November 02, 2011

What is Type 1 Diabetes?
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Type 1 diabetes is a life-long condition that affects how your body processes food and then turns it into energy. When you eat, food is digested and broken down into a simple sugar called glucose. Glucose is necessary for every bodily function, including thinking. But when you have type 1 diabetes, your pancreas stops producing insulin, a hormone that allows your body's cells to take in the glucose for energy. So, instead of using up the glucose from the food you eat and using it for energy, it continuously circulates in your blood.

What are the Usual Symptoms?

Because the glucose can’t get into the cells of your body, and instead builds up in your bloodstream, it throws your body into crisis. The most common symptoms associated with type 1 are:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Frequent need to urinate
  • Continual thirst despite taking fluids
  • Severe hunger urges
  • Unexplained weight loss

It’s easy to understand these symptoms when you realize that the body is starving for glucose. Hunger, weight loss and fatigue are symptoms of the body’s inability to use the glucose for energy. Frequent urination and thirst occur because your body is doing all it can to get rid of the excess glucose by dumping it into the bladder.

Who is at Risk for Type 1?

Though anyone can get type 1, children and adolescents are most frequently diagnosed with this type of diabetes. It is estimated that about 15,000 children and teens in the United States are diagnosed with type 1 each year. Children from non-Hispanic white, African American and Hispanic ethnic groups are at greater risk for type 1. Children from Native American and Asian/Pacific Islander ethnic groups are also at risk for type 1, but have a stronger risk for type 2.

What Causes Type 1?

Type 1 diabetes develops when the immune system turns on itself and destroys cells in the pancreas that are responsible for producing insulin. Why this happens is still unclear to researchers, but the three most likely culprits appear to be:

  • Genes – a family history of diabetes is present for some
  • Viruses – some evidence exists that certain viruses may trigger a response in the immune system that is similar to a search and destroy mission; shutting down insulin production in the pancreas
  • Environment – some researchers suspect that environmental influences, when combined with genetic factors, may raise the risk of type 1 diabetes

Though the exact cause(s) are not yet known, we know for certain that diabetes is not caused by eating foods with high sugar content.

What’s the Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2?

The biggest difference is found in the production of insulin. In type 1, insulin production stops. In type 2, the pancreas continues to make insulin, but it is not enough to keep the glucose in balance. It’s also possible that the pancreas is making adequate amounts of insulin, but the body uses it poorly (called insulin resistance), most often because the person is overweight. The vast majority of those who have been diagnosed with diabetes have type 2.

Is a Cure in Sight?

Currently, there is no cure for diabetes. The closest we come to a cure for type 1 diabetes is a pancreas transplant. But this is risky surgery and those who receive transplants must take potent drugs for the rest of their lives to keep their bodies from rejecting the new organ. Aside from these risks, there is also a shortage of available donors to meet the demand.

Until a safer and more accessible cure is found, the goal is to manage your diabetes well. Clinical studies have shown that well-managed diabetes can delay or even prevent many of the health complications that can result. In fact, there are few things a person with type 1 diabetes can’t do if you take it seriously. Good management habits include:

  • Careful meal planning and healthy eating habits
  • Regular exercise
  • Taking insulin and other medications as prescribed
  • Being a proactive member of your health care team

Sources:

National Diabetes Fact Sheet 2007. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed: August 14, 2008. http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/pdf/ndfs_2007.pdf

Overview of Diabetes in Children and Adolescents. National Diabetes Education Program. Accessed: August 14, 2008. http://www.ndep.nih.gov/diabetes/youth/youth_FS.htm#Type1

Statistics. American Diabetes Association. Accessed: August 14,2008. http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/diabetes-statistics/

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